Managing Five Generations in the Workplace

Five generations are working together in the workplace for the first time in history.[1]  As workplace demographics change and the potential for inter-office conflict between generations increases, companies must adapt and encourage flexible policies and procedures to effectively manage their workforce.  This article focuses on the five generations and their general characteristics, the potential for conflict between generations, and the best practices to effectively manage the five generations.

A.        The Five Generations[2]

            1.         Traditionals/Silent: (Born before 1945)

While 95% of Traditionals have retired from the workforce, those that continue to work are loyal, respect authority, and are highly dedicated employees.[3]  The Great Depression and World War II influenced Traditionals who have strong interpersonal and teamwork skills.[4]  Traditionals are often the company’s most dependable employees.[5]           

            2.         Baby Boomer: (Born 1946-1964)

Boomers grew up during the rise of civil rights activism, the Viet Nam war, and inflation.[6]  Boomers are well-educated, value equality, and have excellent teamwork skills.[7]  Boomers believe in the value of hard work and face-to-face communication, and are more open to change than Traditionals.[8]  Many Boomers plan on working at least part-time during retirement, with some never planning to retire.[9]

            3.         Generation X: (Born 1965-1980)

The “Latchkey Generation,” Generation Xers grew up with both parents working.[10]  Xers are highly independent, reliable, family focused, and socially responsible.[11]  Xers also grew up questioning their parents, and now typically question their employers.[12]  Xers are technologically adept, but older generations may view Xers as “slackers” because they value a work/life balance.[13]

            4.         Generation Y/Millennial: (Born 1980-1995)

Millennials are highly influenced by technology and have a global perspective.[14]  Millennials are loyal, technologically savvy, and highly socialized.[15]  Millennials are more accustomed to change than the previous generations, prefer to work as a team, and like consistent feedback and clear goals.[16]  Millennials are a generation of multi-taskers and are most comfortable communicating via email or text.[17]  By 2020, Millennials will comprise the largest demographic in the United States.[18]

            5.         Generation Z/Linkster: (Born after 1995)

Linksters grew up during immense technological advancement, and social media platforms such as Facebook influenced this generation.[19]  Linksters are technologically dependent, highly tolerant of alternative lifestyle choices, and active in social and green causes.[20]  While Linksters may be tied to their smartphone, they are highly capable of multi-tasking and understand the power of social media.[21]

B.        Potential Workplace Conflicts Between Generations

Multi-generation workforces pose unique difficulties for employers.  One potential conflict arises with communication.  Traditionals and Boomers typically prefer receiving face-to-face communication, or via phone or written memoranda, while Linksters and Millennials generally prefer to communicate via instant message, text, and email.[22]  If management only communicates one way (e.g., the company only communicates via email), it risks creating tension and stress between generations, resulting in difficulties working together and ultimately a less efficient workplace.[23] 

Different generations also have different benefit and scheduling needs.  Traditionals and Boomers tend to place a higher priority on receiving retirement and healthcare benefits, but may also wish to work a part-time schedule for reduced pay as they near retirement.[24]  Xers often prefer flexible schedules to attend functions such as parent/teacher conferences, but also need rising compensation to pay for their mortgage and other family expenses.[25]  Millennials and Linksters are not as concerned about compensation, but rather seek flexible schedules and perks such as vacation and a company phone.[26]  Accordingly, companies with rigid benefits and schedule policies may risk alienating a significant portion of its workforce.

Conflict may also arise regarding managerial styles.  While Traditionals, Boomers, and Xers often prefer to receive feedback on their performance during an annual or bi-annual review, Millennials and Linksters seek constant feedback and recognition.[27]  When employers fail to provide such feedback to the younger generations, it may result in resentment and the employee feeling lost, damaging the workforce environment and decreasing productivity.[28]

Failure to understand and be aware of generational differences can also lead to conflict and legal issues.  Older employees tend to dismiss the abilities of younger employees, while younger employees dismiss the abilities of older employees.[29]  Dismissing an employee’s ability based on generation not only can be toxic to the workplace by dividing employees, creating tension, and reducing productivity, but it may also create liability for the company.[30]  For example, in Ritter v. Auntie Ruth’s Animal Care and Wellness, Inc.,[31] the court found an employer’s comments regarding a generational gap between the employee and her younger coworkers and dismissing the employee’s concerns as a “generational thing” sufficient to overcome the employer’s summary judgment motion on the employee’s age discrimination claim.[32]  Accordingly, employers who fail to recognize generational differences or dismiss concerns based on an employee’s generation may create liability for the company.

C.        Best Practices to Effectively Manage the Five Generations

Employers who wish to get the most out of their workforce should consider the following best practices:

            1.         Be Flexible – One Size Does Not Fit All

Employers should be flexible in how they communicate with their employees.  Using only one communication method risks both losing the message and creating conflict in the workplace.  Employers should discuss with employees their preferred communication methods and strive to communicate in a variety of ways to employees.  For example, a face-to-face meeting with a Traditional is likely to be more effective than sending an email message, but a Skype video conference with a group of Millennials may better communicate the message than a traditional telephone conference call. 

Employers should also be flexible in the benefits they provide.  A higher 401(k) employer matching percentage is likely to appeal more to the generations nearing retirement.  Millennials and Linksters, however, may be more interested in employment policies that provide employees time off to volunteer for community service projects. 

Employers may also consider flexible scheduling policies.  While Traditionals and Boomers may prefer a structured 9 to 5 schedule, Xers may prefer a policy that allows employees to leave early to attend parental functions and make up the missed time later in the week.  Millennials and Linksters may be more attracted to other flexible options, such as working offsite or telecommuting.

            2.         Encourage Mentoring Programs

Another option to increase efficiencies and get the most out of the workforce is to encourage mentoring programs.  Pairing older generations with younger generations both increases generational awareness and provides learning opportunities for both employees.  For example, younger generations can teach older generations regarding newer technologies and social media platforms to help increase productivity and improve efficiencies, while older generations can provide valuable experience and company knowledge to younger generations as they begin their careers.

            3.         Train Managers and Employees Regarding Generational Differences

Employers should also train their managers and employees regarding generational differences.  Recognizing generational differences allows managers to adapt their managerial styles to get the most out of employees, and allows employees to better interact with one another and reduce conflict. 

D.        Conclusion

Employers are now encountering five generations in the workforce.  Each generation has unique traits, demands, and expectations.  Employers who are flexible, encourage mentoring programs, and adequately train their managers and employees will be more likely to increase productivity and more effectively manage their workforce.

 

[1] Rebecca Knight, Managing People from 5 Generations, Harvard Business Review (Sept. 25, 2014), https://hbr.org/2014/09/managing-people-from-5-generations (last accessed Mar. 9, 2016).

[2] The Five Generations often vary in name and birth year ranges.  Further, while the following generational traits are common within each generation, it must be stressed that individual employees may not exhibit such characteristics.

[3] Kate Shacklock, The impact of generations working together: 2015 a significant year, Griffith Business School, Griffith University (2015).

[4] Bob Weinstein, How five generations can effectively work together, Reliable Plant, http://www.reliableplant.com/Articles/Print/26581 (last accessed Mar. 9, 2016). 

[5] Id.

[6] Four Generations in the Workplace, American Management Association (Nov. 6, 2014), http://www.amanet.org/training/articles/Leading-the-Four-Generations-at-Wor.aspx (last accessed Mar. 9, 2016). 

[7] Jonathan T. Hyman, As Easy as X-Y-Z?  Managing Generational Issues in the Workplace, Law Practice Today (Sept. 2013), https://www.americanbar.org/content/newsletter/publications/ law_practice_today_home/lpt-archives/september13/as-easy-as-x-y-z.html (last accessed Mar. 9, 2016).

[8] Id.

[9] Four Generations in the Workplace, supra note 6.

[10] Schacklock, supra note 3.

[11] Weinstein, supra note 4.

[12] Id.

[13] Four Generations in the Workplace, supra note 6.

[14] Hyman, supra note 7.

[15] Weinstein, supra note 4.

[16] Margaret J. Steele and Virginia N. Gordon, Advising in a Multigenerational Workplace, NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources (2006), https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/ Clearinghouse/View-Articles/Generational-issues-in-the-workplace.aspx (last accessed Mar. 9, 2016). 

[17] Schacklock, supra note 3.

[18] Richard Fry, This Year, Millennials Will Overtake Baby Boomers, Pew Research Center Fact Tank (Jan. 16, 2015). 

[19] Weinstein, supra note 4.

[20] Id.

[21] Knight, supra note 1; see also Schacklock, supra note 3.

[22] Stephen Miller, What Do Workers Want?  It Varies by Workforce Generation, SHRM (Aug. 28, 2015), https://www.shrm.org/hrdisciplines/benefits /articles/pages/workforce-generations.aspx (last accessed Mar. 9, 2016).

[23] Id.

[24] How to Manage Different Generations, The Wall Street Journal (Apr. 7, 2009), http://guides.wsj.com/management/managing-your-people/how-to-manage-different-generations/ (last accessed Mar. 9, 2016).

[25] Miller, supra note 22. 

[26] Id.

[27] Shacklock, supra note 3.

[28] Id.

[29] Stephanie Armour, Generation Y: They’ve arrived at work with a new attitude, USA Today (Nov. 6, 2005), http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/money/workplace/2005-11-06-gen-y_x.htm.

[30] The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, 29 U.S.C. § 621, et seq. (“ADEA”), prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of age against employees at least 40 years of age.  Accordingly, the ADEA does not currently protect Millennials and Linksters.

[31] Ritter v. Auntie Ruth’s Animal Care and Wellness, Inc., 2015 WL 506727 (Minn. Ct. App. Feb. 9, 2015).

[32] Id. at *4.

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